Gaming Memories, 1985: TI99/4A, Our First Family Computer

After suffering through second and third grade with the Odyssey 2 — a machine that couldn’t play arcade hits — I begged my parents to consider buying me the Coleco ADAM computer for Christmas 1984. I wanted it for the games. Buck Rogers: Planet of Doom looked amazing. Dragon’s Lair was being promised as a future release. And the machine was backwards compatible, allowing access to ColecoVision hits like Smurfs, Mappy, and Donkey Kong. Of course, I sold it to my parents as a must-have device for homework. Other kids were getting computers — mostly Commodore 64s or IBM PCs. I pitched my folks on the ADAM’s word processing capabilities and its educational software. It even came with a printer!

They were open to the idea of purchasing a computer, but unfortunately, Bill Cosby proved to be a more persuasive spokesman than I did. They chose the machine that the comedian was advertising heavily on television — the awkwardly named TI99/4A. It looked like a business machine, and it was built by a business machine company.

For the first year of ownership, I was disappointed with with TI99/4A. Just as with the Odysessy 2, it supported game cartridges, but none of the big licensed titles. My Pac-Man dreams were thwarted; I had to settle for a knock-off game starring a nearly identical critter named Munch-Man. There would be no home version of Defender for me; I was stuck with Parsec. And the controllers were terrible. You had to clench your left hand like a vice around the base in order to move the stick.

And then, for Christmas 1985, something magical happened. Atari finally started releasing games for the TI99/4A, including the arcade game ports I had always wanted. That holiday, I opened four big, beautiful yellow boxes: inside were cartridge adaptations of Donkey Kong, Centipede, Moon Patrol, andPole Position. That Christmas morning still stands as one of my all-time favorites.

For two weeks, I got busy mastering the games. Finally, I would be able to top the scoreboards at the arcades! Even the teenagers at Chuck E. Cheese would be envious of my incredible skills.

Shirl’s Drive Thru was our local ice-cream parlor. It always had three arcade machines. In the Winter of 1985, they featuredMoon Patrol, Root Beer Tapper, andSuper Pac-Man. Since the place was walking distance, I made it my first post-Christmas priority to get there and get to #1 onMoon Patrol’s leaderboards. My little sister came along, eager to cheer me on.

The first time I attempted to demonstrate my new found might on the arcade machine, I came away disappointed. The timing was very different between the coin-op game and the home edition. The arcade machine was harder and faster. I couldn’t crack the scoreboards; not even close. In fact, I couldn’t even complete the first stage.

When I finally made it to Chuck E. Cheese a month later, I learned that home training had not improved my skills on the arcade versions of Donkey Kong,Centipede, or Pole Position. Worse still, I finally understood why my friends quickly stopped playing their Colecovision or Atari 2600 versions of the big arcade hits… after a few weeks, they got boring.

And so Dad stepped in and personally delivered the very best game I ever got to play on my TI99/4A. He made it himself. Through BASIC, he had figured out how to create a program that would ask me 300 customized Trivial Pursuit questions. The program was meant to be used with the physical Trivial Pursuit board; he had gone so far as to create a computer opponent that would ‘roll dice’ and ‘answer questions’. I loved Trivial Pursuit, but I had a hard time convincing friends or family to take the time to play it with me. So now, I could play on my own, whenever I wanted.

All I had really wanted was a fancy game console… and yet, this incredibly cool Trivial Pursuit experience would have been impossible to have on a traditional gaming machine. The computer had unlocked my father’s creativity. The project he chose was conducive to updates… every few weeks, he would add new questions. He loved this elaborate hobbyist project, and I loved being his sole customer. As it turns out, Bill Cosby was right. As the funnyman said in his commercials: “The Texas Instruments home computer: this is the one.”

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